Whether you are excited by the martial arts, Bon Jovi or organic gardening, praying mantises enjoy a broad popular appeal. This is interesting because some of their closest relatives in the insect world are the termites and cockroaches.
The Praying Mantis (and other members of the same insect order, called collectively “mantids”) got their name from the meditative way they hold their front legs. It has nothing to do with how they catch their prey. They are not “preying mantises.”
Four mantid species are known to reside in Pennsylvania. Only one of them is officially “praying.” Three of them were imported from other parts of the world.
By far the largest and most common mantis in our region is the Chinese Mantis. This species was imported as a pest control agent from China and introduced near Philadelphia around 1896. They are easily recognized by a dark green stripe that runs the length of the wing.
The closely related Narrow Winged Mantis was introduced from Japan around 1926. I’m not sure how common the Narrow Winged Mantis is here in the Lehigh Valley.
Another common name for the European Mantis, also found in the Lehigh Valley, is the “Praying Mantis.” Its scientific name is Mantis religiosa. Mantis is derived from the Greek word for “prophet” and religiosa speaks for itself. The European Mantis was introduced to North America from Europe in 1899. Ironically, this invasive species was named as the state insect of Connecticut in 1977 as a symbol of the “importance of the natural environment to human and biological survival.”
There are about 20 native mantid species in North America. Of these, only the Carolina Mantis can be found in Pennsylvania. It is more common in the South and was chosen in 1988 to represent South Carolina as its state insect. Elsewhere in the world, there are about 2,000 mantid species. Many of them are unbelievably colorful and amazingly camouflaged.
No state has ever outlawed the deliberate killing of a praying mantis. However, it is illegal (and monumentally unwise) to keep or import any foreign mantid (other than the common and widely established Chinese and European species mentioned above) without a specific permit from the USDA.
Several companies legally sell the egg cases of Chinese Praying Mantises for their work in the garden. The egg cases look like blobs of brown Styrofoam and contain about 100-400 eggs each. One generation of mantises will mature over an entire summer to adulthood. In the fall, female mantises will lay their egg cases on sticks and undersides of leaves and die. To the horror or delight of homeowners, mantis egg cases are sometimes brought inside with Christmas trees. A yuletide morning, complete with hundreds of crawling baby praying mantises, can be an unexpected way to start the festivities.
I’m not convinced that mantiss eggs are the best thing to spend money on. They probably devour as many pest insects as they munch on beneficial ones. On the other hand, mantises are so cute when they are little. Take note, unless your store-bought mantises are spread out sufficiently and have plenty of food, they will just chow down on each other. Imagine a particularly gruesome episode of Survivor. Large praying mantises near the end of the summer have even been observed to capture hummingbirds.
Praying mantis lore has it that the females will bite the head off their male partners following a romantic interlude. Kenneth Roeder, a pioneer of insect neuroscience at Tufts University wrote a comprehensive article on this very topic back in 1935. Within the scientific community, this topic has inspired a spirited controversy. The upshot: it sometimes happens, but usually when the female is very hungry. Good to know.
This work by Marten Edwards is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.